For Guillermo Figueroa, who was a young violin student at Juilliard back in the early ’70s, it was just another gig. He was wrong. “It still rings with me all these years later,” he said of his introduction to the powerful music of Hector Berlioz. “It changed my life.”
At that freelance job, Figueroa found himself seated in the back of a huge orchestra, one of 300 musicians preparing a concert version of Berlioz’s gigantic opera Les Troyens. From his distant vantage point, he couldn’t grasp the sheer grandeur of the music. But when this army of musicians and singers moved to Carnegie Hall, the impact of the concert was earthshaking.
“I’ve never had anything like that happen before or since,” he said.
His love affair with Berlioz began that night, and it has never faded. On Saturday, May 18, and Sunday, May 19, Figueroa will conduct The Santa Fe Symphony in an all-Berlioz concert honoring the 150th anniversary of the French composer’s death. Mezzo-soprano Rebecca Robinson also performs in this finale to the orchestra’s 35th season. Figueroa’s concerts with the Santa Fe Symphony this month will be highlighted by two Berlioz rarities, along with the composer’s greatest hit, the Symphonie fantastique (1830).
It’s been a long, interesting journey from the back of that violin section in Carnegie Hall to the concert podium.
As a member of Puerto Rico’s most celebrated musical family, Figueroa began a life in music with the violin. His father was a conductor and became Guillermo’s early teacher at the Conservatory of Music in his homeland. In later years, while serving as concertmaster with the New York City Ballet Orchestra, he would occasionally step onto the podium. Those experiences led to an invitation from the New Mexico Festival Ballet to lead The Nutcracker in 2000. From there, he auditioned for the New Mexico Symphony Orchestra, an Albuquerque-based group that was searching for a music director. Following an April 2001 concert appearance, he was awarded the position. That same year, Figueroa was appointed music director of the Puerto Rico Symphony.
During the 2001-2002 season, he found himself dashing between the New Mexico and Puerto Rico orchestras and the City Ballet in New York. At 49, he was married with three daughters, and something had to give. New York proved one post too many, so he left the ballet in 2002 and moved his family to Albuquerque.
In 2003, Figueroa’s old French friend returned. The occasion was the composer’s 200th birthday, and the conductor led the New Mexico orchestra in a Berlioz festival, including an Albuquerque concert featuring excerpts from Les Troyens.
There’s simply been no escaping the French composer’s pull on Figueroa: In 1972, he co-founded the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, which famously eschews the role of conductor. On tours with the group, his passion for Berlioz became an ongoing joke with his fellow players. “I was an absolute pest. I had my Walkman and I’d say, ‘Hey, listen to this!’ They started to make fun of me. We toured all through Europe, and one time in Germany they finally got me,” he recalled, laughing. “I’d decided to stay on the bus by a small store at a rest stop. One guy ran out to [tell] me about how the shop had a huge collection of Berlioz scores. When I dashed in, they were all waiting for me.” He’d been had.
Figueroa knows that the Symphonie fantastique is the major attraction on the Santa Fe Symphony’s Berlioz program. But, he said, it’s the concert’s first half that contains the biggest surprise: a lovely short work for violin and orchestra, Rêverie et Caprice (1841), with the conductor as soloist and concertmaster David Felberg on the podium, plus the ambitious cantata La Mort de Cléopâtre (1829), sung by Robinson.
Those two rarities will pose a challenge for the orchestra, since the players had never heard or played either work before, the conductor said. “To be honest, until recently, I wasn’t aware of Cléopâtre. Berlioz wrote it when he was only 24 — that was before the Symphonie. It’s such an operatic piece, which made me wonder, Why was it never staged?”
Through its 20-minute emotional roller coaster, the piece follows the title character as she resigns herself to suicide. Most mezzos simply stand and sing, but not here. “We’ll have a lounge chair for Rebecca, and a basket nearby,” Figueroa said. “She’ll reach into the basket to be bitten by the snake, then will sing her last notes on the chair.” Supertitles of the text will be projected.
Robinson, a graduate of the College of Music at the University of Colorado, Boulder, recently sang Cléopâtre with Figueroa and the Lynn Philharmonia in Boca Raton, Florida. The conductor raved about her performance — with one caveat. “Cleopatra had dark hair. Too bad Rebecca is a blonde.” ◀
▼ The Santa Fe Symphony presents Berlioz Celebration, with conductor Guillermo Figueroa and mezzo-soprano Rebecca Robinson
▼ 7 p.m. Saturday, May 18, and 4 p.m. Sunday, May 19
▼ The Lensic Performing Arts Center, 211 W. San Francisco St.
▼ $22-$80; 505-988-1234 or 505-983-1414, boxoffice.santafesymphony.org